How to Take Care of an Autistic Child
In my experience as a former behavior technician working with children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, I have learned that every autistic child is different. While the overall diagnosis has some common deficits that can found be across all individuals on the autism spectrum, everyone has a different personality, just like a neurotypical individual does.
The children I worked with all certainly had little differences that made them unique. While one child I worked with loved to play outside, I had another who despised the outdoors. In another example, I worked with a kid who was extremely affectionate and loving. He loved giving hugs and being under you. However, I also worked with a child who did not like to be touched, especially hugging.
Teaching the Way They Learn
Overall, the autism diagnosis shares some commonalities in behavior, but each child is different in their own way, and we must acknowledge that. The best quote from a famous researcher stated, “If they can’t learn the way we teach, then we teach the way they learn.” I love this. The statement makes perfect sense because it basically explains how each person on the autism spectrum is different and how it is our responsibility to adjust the way we teach so they can grow.
That quote is the reason we celebrate neurodiversity because, just like how we adjust to neurotypical individuals with their differences, it is the same for those on the autism spectrum. Each person has a skill that makes them unique in this world. With our respective skills, we approach situations differently based on our level of comprehension.
A person on the spectrum is not only their diagnosis. These individuals have skills that others might not possess, so we need to celebrate those differences. After all, differences contribute to our world and allow us to continue to thrive. We want to support growth and change by respecting differences among all individuals.
For an autistic child, some of the overarching needs that are different when compared to those of a neurotypical child would be environments with limited physical stimuli. For example, Chuck E. Cheese, because it is crowded with a lot of movement and noise, can be overstimulating for those on the autism spectrum.
Routines, Schedules, and Autism
Routines and schedules are seriously helpful for those on the autism spectrum. They provide guidelines to follow and prevent maladaptive behaviors (because the individuals are aware of what comes next). The thought of not knowing what to do can trigger behaviors that hinder growth. This causes stress, which is coped with through a behavior that may not be appropriate for the child. Emotions are not quite understood, though, and therefore reactions are actually normal (depending on the situation).
Here is a quick story to help illustrate this:
An autistic boy has a morning routine that he follows daily. One day, mom made a change to the usual routine because an unexpected event occurred. Her son reacted by throwing a tantrum out of frustration because he wasn’t sure what to do (since his routine was changed). Naturally, mom tried to calm the child down and explain the situation, but it was no help because he did not understand the abrupt change to his normal schedule.
If that seems unreasonable, think about it in the context of what it would be like for you if your routine at work was suddenly changed without getting a heads up. Wouldn’t that be frustrating? You might even want to express your frustration at being unsure about what comes next or what to do in that kind of situation. After all, you’ve become used to following a routine that makes your job easier and reduces stress. But then this unexpected change happens, you become stressed, and it all leads to more frustration and problems.
Perhaps neurodivergent and neurotypical people aren’t so different after all?
Working With Autistic Youth at Home and in School
According to At Home Healthcare (2022), there are companies that have teams that come into the home to work on behaviors and skills. They teach families how to learn about their autistic child and their needs, which then changes the family dynamic in a positive way.
This short story helps illustrate how home care works:
Linken, a young autistic boy, struggled with any form of communication, so a team that included a licensed speech pathologist and certified occupational therapist was formed. This team was assigned to work with Linken in his home, and they started by developing strategies to increase fine and gross motor functioning, along with speech, language, and communication. They implemented their strategies and provided Linken’s parents with methods for understanding his unique needs. As a result, his growth has increased immensely.
Along with home care, school plays a key role in caring for autistic youth. And when I was a teacher in the Detroit Community School District, we saw this when there were some students on the autism spectrum who weren’t given the tools to thrive throughout the school year. Parents need to consider if their child’s school offers assistance for autistic students. If parents are unsure, they can call the school to speak with the principal directly to learn what programs they offer that might benefit their child.
Parents should request an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to be put in place for their autistic child. The IEP ensures their child’s needs are being met. Visit the schools on your list that offer beneficial programs for your child so you can learn the validity and reliability of the information provided.
It is also important to locate schools that have special categorical classes and rotate the child in both special and general education. Having both benefits your child because they can learn from one-on-one instruction to help boost skills and behavior. Then, they can apply the skills and behaviors they’ve learned, while at the same time learning from others within their age group, in the general education classes.
ABA and Priming
There is a technique used in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) that we call priming. This is a very effective tool to use for autistic children, as it basically prepares them slowly for what is to come (to prevent unwanted behaviors during a transition).
An example of priming is when parents start telling a child in April that summer is coming and there will be no school until the fall. This helps autistic children get used to it and be better prepared when that time comes. And then when summer is getting close to ending in August, begin letting your child know that summer is almost over, and school will start again on a particular date. Consistently priming like that until a child understands the switch in routine and when it comes can help to make the transition smoother for them.
The priming technique can be used for changing schools, schedules, and routines. If you are changing schools because the new school is more beneficial, let them know in the fall. Tell them about going to a new school and let them know what to expect. When it is time to start the new school, any behaviors will likely not be as intense because your child was aware of the change.
Using the priming technique and Premack principle (“first [this], then [that]” language), you can help alleviate some behaviors in an environment. For example, parents can say, “We are going to the grocery store to buy food to eat. Once we get there, we will stay close to mom. We are not buying any candy. If we are good in grocery store, then we can go get ice cream. First, grocery store, then ice cream.” Using this language or something close will help build understanding for expected behaviors in different environments.
Change can occur; parents just have to be willing to apply it and be consistent. Remember, autistic children need this until it becomes learned.
Take Care of Yourself, So You Can Take Care of Them
Self-care is essential for taking care of an autistic youth. A parent’s health is important because you need strength to assist your child. In most cases, parents are overwhelmed and exhausted from giving in to behaviors, instead of changing them.
One idea to help you rejuvenate and find strength is to take a nap when your child is napping. Another suggestion that can be helpful is to try completing tasks that do not require too much of your attention while your child is working on something or busy playing.
For parents, there are no days off, so a smart practice is to get the entire family acclimated with behaviors and able to help shape them. You will find that other family members can learn and become more empathetic in this way. All familial interactions have the potential to affect the child in a positive way. And you may want to ask grandparents to babysit to give you time for yourself.
Enroll in programs that benefits your child and provides a break for you at the same time. For instance, your child may attend speech or occupational therapy. Once you drop off your child at an appointment, use that time to do something for yourself, instead of sitting there. You can use that time while your autistic child is occupied and being attended to.
It Takes a Village (And We Can Be Part of It)
Through all we covered today, you can hopefully see that your autistic child needs a village to ensure growth and development. At Waypoints Life, we offer education that teaches you and your child. We also provide tools to help you all grow individually and collectively.
Please feel free to explore our site to learn more about what we offer and check out other blogs that could be relatable to you and your situation!
Waypoints currently operates in Ottawa and Kent Counties, and one of our recent blog posts covered some great autism support
Get in Touch With Waypoints
Whether you’re looking for diagnostic testing, one-on-one in-home ABA therapy and skill-building resources, or simply want to learn more about our unique approach, please don’t hesitate to reach out! (We love getting mail.)